TIME IS running out—this desperate thought sends your heart racing; you must find a way to get out of this locked room as quickly as possible. This is the joy of an escape room, an attraction that offers a thrilling experience that other indoor activities cannot. All rooms have a theme and participants are introduced to the guiding story prior to entering a room. Once inside, they must obtain hints and solve riddles to complete the goal of escaping the room. For those that enjoy an active and engaging activity deviating from the typical routine of meeting up with friends at restaurants and cafés, escape rooms are the place to go.
The initial concept of an “escape room” originated from a mystery genre video game in Japan called the “Crimson Room,” which was created in 2004 by Toshimitsu Takagi. This was a point-and-click computer game in which players had to escape a locked room by clicking on and interacting with the equipment provided within the virtual room. After watching his friend play online escape games, Takao Kato, the founder of SCRAP Entertainment Incorporation, created live escape rooms called the “Real Escape Game” in Kyoto, Japan, in 2007. He believes that escape rooms create an unusual environment with time limits and confined spaces that is not easily found in the outside world. This environment makes people think outside of the box and gives them a chance to experience the unexperienced.
Since their creation, escape rooms have attracted mass appeal worldwide. In Korea, escape rooms have especially become a popular option for a date or a night out. According to All That Escape, a Korean directory of escape rooms, there are over 200 escape rooms running across the country. The attraction has gained media attention through the reality show Dae-Tal-Chul, the “Great Escape,” in which celebrities have to escape large settings such as an entire building. With novel and creative ideas being constantly created by designers, escape rooms remain continuously popular.
Escape rooms often abide to the common themes of mystery, horror, romance, action, science-fiction and fantasy. Within the room itself, objects and hints have complex links with a wide variety of locks and spaces.
To look into the process of how these complicated links and stories are formed, The Yonsei Annalsinterviewed Kim Jung-bin, the manager of the Gangnam branch of Mystery Room Escape, a franchise escape room café with six branches. When asked about how he decides on the themes and stories for his escape rooms, he said, “Picking the theme is the hardest part of the process, as if it is not entertaining enough, customers will not come. It can’t be too easy or too hard, and since I can’t experience it beforehand, I have to be careful when choosing the theme. Themes also tend to follow current trends and thus change overtime.”
After the confirmation of the theme and storyline, the planning of the actual escape room takes place. Kim elaborated this process to the Annals. “Of course I don’t plan and make the escape room all by myself. The screenwriters hired by the head office of Mystery Room Escape oversee the planning and thinking stage of the themes. I then read the proposal, and if I think it is suitable for my shop, I go through some amendment procedures in consultation with the screenwriters. The themes are often inspired by current social issues, so they constantly change over time.” In addition, when connecting the hints and objects of the escape room, Kim mentioned, “I think of the big picture first and sometimes apply the hints in a way that is opposite to what people would normally think. For example, doors may not be the only place where people can go in and out. Also, minor details that people easily overlook can be the most decisive hints.”
Aside from entertainment, escape rooms are being utilized for educational purposes, especially in history. In April 2018, The Cultural Heritage Administration created an educational escape room at Gyeongbokgung Palace for the Culture Festival at Palaces. In the escape room, participants were able to follow the steps of King Sejong around the palace. Similarly, in August 2018, the city council organized an escape room about finding the lost relics of the kings of Baek-je at the Baek-je Cultural Festival in Gongju. While these escape rooms provide a source of entertainment at festivals for children, families, and couples, they are also a fun and engaging way to learn more about Korean history.
With the rise in the popularity of this novel form of entertainment and education, not only has the range of its topics been broadened, but the nature of rooms themselves is also changing. Recently, escape rooms have evolved to incorporate more depth and technology. For instance, virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) techniques are now being used in escape rooms, making the experience more unique. Examples include the CSI: VR Escape Room Café, which incorporates the VR technique, and Escape Top that uses AR. With new technologies like VR and AR, escape rooms can expand beyond the space of the physical room. As the variety of items and puzzles with VR and AR increases, participants can obtain new hints outside of their immediate reality of what can be seen right in front of their eyes.
Creators are also incentivized to use VR and AR technologies because they cut their own costs. Updating the themes and interiors of offline escape rooms is often extremely expensive since most are for single-usage only, as it is meaningless for the customers, especially those seeking a challenge, to try out the same escape room twice. In contrast, the features of VR and AR allow creators to use space more efficiently and make the interior set up less of a priority.
Several escape room cafés in Korea have introduced VR and AR technology into their rooms. In some, the rooms are the same, but participants are given tablets or phones to view AR materials similar to those in Pokémon Go. In other escape rooms, participants are given VR goggles, air guns and controllers, and must escape the virtual room utilizing such cutting-edge technological gadgets.
Jeong Su-ho (Fresh., UIC, Integrated Science & Engin. Field) shared his experience of solving an AR escape room in an interview with the Annals. “We were given an iPad prior to our entry. We used it by facing the camera towards specific places in the room, towards images that were labelled to be specifically designed for the AR. This enabled us to view the AR scenarios through the iPad screen, giving us hints.” Another user told the Annals, “The way the themes blended with technology created an atmosphere that immersed us into the setting.” With the use of AR technology, hints can be given in a more innovative and entertaining manner, and act as a bridge with the virtual world and reality.
The form of escape rooms will continue to develop, as countless ideas are being introduced even in this very moment. Baek Sung-cil, the head of HO Entertainment, a company that develops VR and AR content, incorporated VR and AR techniques into escape rooms at CSI: VR Escape Room Café. According to an interview with Gametoc, Baek expects the wider incorporation of virtual, augmented, and mixed reality (MR) into escape room scenarios. He also mentioned that rooms might even use holograms in the future.
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The increasingly developed and complicated forms that escape rooms take now are blurring the lines between reality and game, rendering the experience more vivid and memorable. Become the protagonist of the one-hour long story and experience the thrill of unravelling the mysteries one by one. You can become a detective looking for a murderer, a wizard trying to unwind a spell, a cop looking into a bank robbery, or whatever your imagination takes you. You have one hour; will you be the one to escape?